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Long Beach vs. 13 Airlines : Trial Opens on Airport Noise Law

March 10, 1988|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

The City of Long Beach is failing to honor its obligation to the air-traveling public by refusing to increase flights at Long Beach Airport, airline attorneys charged this week at the start of a federal trial on challenges to the city's restrictive airport noise law.

Airline attorneys told U.S. District Judge Laughlin Waters that the city has failed to encourage soundproofing of homes or schools near the airport and refused to cooperate with airlines seeking new flights or to build new airport facilities.

If the city's limit on flights was relaxed, the community could receive an economic benefit ranging from $30 million to $100 million a year, said John Lyons, an attorney for America West Airlines, one of 13 commercial carriers that filed the suit against Long Beach in 1983.

But a private attorney representing the city countered in his own opening statement in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday that Long Beach has every right to control its airport and protect its residents from noisy aircraft operations.

"The city has persistently pursued noise goals," said Lee A. Blackman. "It has acted on behalf of the community it serves. It has not acted in bad faith."

After years of wrangling, the long-awaited courtroom showdown over the city's airline flight restrictions opened with a gaggle of attorneys, boxes and boxes of documents and exhibits numbered into the thousands. The courtroom was filled with so many lawyers that Waters has jokingly referred to the assembly as a meeting of the bar association.

The suit stems from noise limits imposed by the City Council in recent years as what was once a sleepy local airfield blossomed into an important regional airport. Long Beach has become a center for airlines seeking alternatives to the crowded Los Angeles International Airport.

Deputy City Atty. Roger Freeman said both sides hope to wrap up the lengthy non-jury trial by April 8, when Waters plans to leave for a few weeks to substitute for a judge in another jurisdiction.

The airlines suing are Alaska, PSA, America West, Continental, Delta, American, Qwest Air, Federal Express, Wings West, United, United Express, Resort Commuter and TWA.

Lawyers for the Long Beach Unified School District, in the meantime, are helping in the city's defense.

As the case moved slowly toward trial, Waters issued a major ruling in favor of the airlines, granting preliminary injunctions that allowed them to increase the number of flights to 26 a day for major airlines and 25 a day for commuter air carriers. While the airlines want Waters to give them even more daily flights, Lyons said the carriers are not asking for a specific number.

But Waters also ruled against the airlines on Tuesday by allowing a group of activist residents opposed to airport noise--Long Beach Houses Under Stress and Hazard (HUSH)--to remain part of the case and to present witnesses on behalf of the affected residents. Waters' ruling was hailed by Long Beach City Councilman Edd Tuttle, whose 8th District lies in the flight path.

"I think it's outstanding for the city," said Tuttle, who attended the opening day of trial. "We just want to go in and present our case and let the chips fall where they may."

Tuttle and HUSH attorneys said they plan to pack the courtroom with 50 observers a day when their witnesses take the stand towards the end of the trial. The witnesses are expected to talk about health, safety and economic problems associated with living under a flight path.

Lawyers will ask the judge to move the trial to the large auditorium in the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration to accommodate thousands of residents who are expected to come to watch the proceedings, Tuttle said.

In outlining why more flights should be allowed at the airport, Lyons said the city has not balanced its own interests against those of the public and the need for interstate commerce.

After accepting federal funds and operating for years as an airport for commercial aviation, Long Beach officials now seek to end that relationship, he said.

The city refuses to let the noise limit exceed its standard in even a single house, yet refuses to consider soundproofing in homes or schools. The city has also "not spent a single cent" to improve the airport unless ordered by the court, Lyons added.

"The issue is what can be reasonably done to permit flight activity and balance," Lyons said. "Long Beach, standing here today . . . wants to get out of the system, wants to no longer be part of the national transportation industry."

City lawyer Blackman said, however, that Long Beach established a reasonable noise-based standard after review by a task force.

HUSH attorney Samuel A. Keesal Jr. said 10,000 to 12,000 people in suburban neighborhoods surrounding the airport are directly affected by takeoffs and landings. At one time, he said, the city had about 1,200 lawsuits pending concerning airport noise. Now, with the tougher standards, the suits have dwindled to about 600.

While the airline lawyers talk about wanting to strengthen the national air transport system, their primary goal is to make more money for their air carriers, Keesal said.

Long Beach School District attorney Thomas S. Kerrigan said that soundproofing classrooms against aircraft noise would do nothing to protect children while they are in playgrounds or parks. Studies have shown that aircraft noise has adverse effects on children and causes a "serious disruption" of schools, he said.

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